The Congress Party's persistent efforts to stonewall a proper investigation into the 2 G Spectrum Scandal by the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), specially constituted for the purpose, has once again brought to the fore the partisan approach of the Congress to parliamentary scrutiny. Keen to ensure that the committee does not indict the Prime minister and the Finance Minister, the Congress appears to be going the extra mile to make sure that the JPC does not fulfill its remit.
The attitude of the Congress is disappointing because it is cutting at the root of non-partisanship, that is central to the work of parliamentary committees. Obviously, in this era of unending scams, the party has realized that while non-partisanship may enhance the dignity and prestige of parliament, it would be ruinous in so far as the image of the government and the party are concerned. Therefore, it is better to split the committee on political lines and use its majority status to squelch free and independent deliberations rather than face a harsh denunciation that would further harm the party's image.
Those who have followed parliamentary probes into the Bofors and HDW deals cannot help feel a sense of déjà vu when they see the partisan politics playing out once again within this JPC. Long years ago, the Congress Party was far more robust and confident while dealing with issues relating to probity in public life. For example, when allegations were made against Mr.H.G.Mudgal, a Congress MP, in the Provisional Parliament in 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took the initiative to constitute a committee to probe the member's conduct.
Thereafter, when the committee indicted the MP, Nehru himself moved a resolution for Mudgal's expulsion. All this confidence evaporated after Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister. The party rejected demands for parliamentary investigations into corruption cases during her tenure. Years later, when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, one saw gross interference in the work of the JPC constituted to probe the Bofors gun deal. First of all, the Congress, which had 410 members in the Lok Sabha, ensured that the committee's terms of reference were restricted. Secondly, when a disappointed opposition decided to boycott the JPC, it made no effort to bring the opposition on board. Instead it stacked the committee with Congress MPs and members belonging to its allies. The chairmanship was given to Mr.Shankaranand, a MP of long standing whose only qualification was that he was never accused of independent thinking or action.
The Shakaranand report actually lowered the prestige of parliament, because it came to conclusions that later proved to be false. By the time the JPC got down to business, the Swedish National Audit Bureau had already done a preliminary investigation and declared that Bofors had paid out 319 million Swedish Kroners to certain entities. So, there was no way the JPC could have hushed this up. But, it began the whitewash from there on. The JPC meekly swallowed the statements made by two officials of Bofors who appeared before it. When asked to identify the recipients of the commissions and bribes, they claimed confidentiality and Mr.Shankaranand considered this legitimate.
Since Bofors did not supply any documents, the committee was clueless about the identity of the recipients. Yet, it bravely proclaimed that no resident or non-resident Indian had received commissions from Bofors. Similarly, without a shred of evidence, it declared that the payments made by Bofors were "winding up costs". It also concluded that no middlemen were involved and that no commissions or bribes had been paid. Later investigations by the media showed that each of these conclusions were bogus. There were several streams of payments by Bofors, the most prominent of which was the one made to Ottavio Quattrochchi, friend of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. Bofors deposited U.S $ 7.3 million into his Swiss Bank account after India made the first tranche of payments to Bofors. That is why, when the Lok Sabha dissected the JPC's conclusions during a 10-hour debate in May, 1988, a leading member of the opposition described the committee's report as "a classic case of whitewash with hogwash, which has left indelible stains on the walls of Indian Parliament". Mr.Somnath Chatterjee, who later became Speaker of the Lok Sabha said they stayed away from the committee because they did not want to be part of a "powerless, toothless committee" that eventually gave birth to a still-born child.
The party played dirty yet again when the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) investigated the HDW Submarine deal, following adverse comments by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). As in the case of Bofors, there were allegations that some middlemen had knocked off commissions in this deal as well. The CAG had also indicted the government for excess payments and for a variety of other decisions relating to this contract.
Anxious to prevent a fair and objective investigation by the PAC, the Rajiv Gandhi Government got the Congress members on the committee to stall the inquiry and to prevent the Chairman - Mr.Amal Datta of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - from carrying out his task. At the government's behest, the Congress MPs refused to consider the draft report prepared by the Chairman.
Instead they came to the meeting with a draft of their own and used their majority to declare their draft to be the official report of the PAC. However, all these tactics failed to help the party. It was roundly thrashed in the parliamentary election held in November, 1989. Let us also not forget the manner in which Congress members of the PAC stalled a possible investigation into the Sugar Import Scandal by the committee in June, 1994. Here again, Congress MPs on the PAC, who constituted a majority raised a number of objections and prevented the committee's Chairman - Mr.Bhagwan Shankar Rawat of the Bharatiya Janata Party - from initiating a probe. At that time, Mr.George Fernandes had said that the then Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mr.V.C.Shukla had given Congress members of the committee a secret note on what needed to be done. The Congress MPs also successfully prevented the food secretary from tendering evidence before the committee. When the Chairman insisted that the scandal be probed, Congress members pressed for a vote, leaving the Chairman with no option but to adjourn the meeting abruptly.
The Congress Party is at it again, trying to scuttle the probe into the 2G Scam. If, in the process, Parliament as an institution gets weaker, so be it. We should consider ourselves blessed if in the light of all this evidence, the Prime Minister will stop lecturing us on how independent and vigourous institutions strengthen democracy.